Memento Mori V – Or, The Deer and the Turkey Vultures

CW: Animal death, decomposition, blood, death

The deer had been struck by a car a few hours before, as the sun warmed the early-dawn horizon. At least, I could only assume this was the case. I hadn’t seen the impact—wasn’t present for any last struggles or last breaths. All I had was the evidence as I came upon it: the fresh deer carcass, glossy-coated and gracefully arranged even in death, surrounded by seven or eight dark, stooped turkey vultures going about their grim business like so many Reapers.

Close-up of a turkey vulture’s head and shoulders. Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

I could smell the birds from across the street. Turkey vultures smell like death: that cloying, wincing blend of rotten meat and spoiled milk, the tang of clotted blood and the pungent mess of torn viscera. The deer was too fresh to smell. But the vultures, living, moving, breathing, studying, working, hissing—they carried unmistakeable putrefaction in their whiffling wings and lustrous feathers.

Each time the cool morning breeze shifted, I caught my breath and turned my head. An old instinct—a primal reflex.

But I watched. I’d stopped my morning walk, pausing on the winding path across the street to marvel, realizing there was something strange and special about this moment of essential reality. Something worth witnessing.

The scene felt decidedly unreal, unnatural, which was evidence, I thought, of Baudrillard’s hyperreal in action. Could any scene be more natural, more aligned with the universal laws beyond human control? Could any scene be less affected, less contrived, less curated?

And yet my mind received it as a fascinating National Geographic tableau: something I might see in a magazine, or watch in a documentary, or hear described by someone whose passport was far more stamped and tattered than mine. Something safely and carefully packaged, like this very essay—sterilized with words and distance and pacing and framing.

Yet here I was, standing in Santa Rosa, California, the fifth most populous city in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’d woken as I did every morning, had my coffee, worked for a pre-dawn hour on my novel, put on my exercise clothes, headed out for my regular morning walk. Once I returned home, I’d shower, dress, and head to work. These things were natural. The pavement, the houses and apartments, the cars zipping down Bethards Drive, the schedule.

And here was Death, awake and active in the midst of my regular life. Not the deer itself, but the vultures. Their unambiguous scent. Their quiet bickering hisses. Their weighty movements as they worked to tear the carcass open right there on somebody’s lawn.

Granted, I lived on the far southeastern edge of Santa Rosa. My winding daily path took me along the Bennett Valley Golf Course to the west, with Trione-Annadel State Park directly east of the sprawling wealthy subdivision I was now facing. I regularly saw deer in the morning, hiding in the golf course landscaping and crossing through lush backyards. Wild turkeys as well. And yes—even the occasional turkey vulture.

But I’d never seen them in numbers like this, never seen them at their merciless evolutionary duties. Not up close.

I love turkey vultures. Yes, yes, it’s almost a requirement for me, as a goth—a deep and abiding affection for corvids, and a ghoulish appreciation for carrion birds. I’ll happily admit a special fondness for the bearded vulture, whose diet consists almost entirely of bone. No surprises here. But which came first, the raven or the egg? I contend that it’s my affection for these grotesque creatures that makes me a goth—not the other way around. The fascination came well before the aesthetic.

And turkey vultures—turkey vultures fill me with a special kind of joy. They look so graceful in flight, their broad feathers unfolded and rippling with gorgeous, epic ease, their forms silhouetted with streamlined majesty. But then they land, heavily, and the elegant posture abruptly drops into that of a hunched, cloaked, and sinister omen. Their cadaverous heads cock with all the curious intelligence of a pigeon or a robin. The stench hits your nostrils.

The sharp transition from resplendence to horror spills me into laughter. A turkey vulture has no notion how horrifying he appears. There’s innocence blended with the ghastly.

One morning on my walk, I came upon another woman walking from the opposite direction. A solitary turkey vulture perched inoffensively on the chain-link golf course fence between us—perhaps three yards from the sidewalk—and as I neared him, I grinned at the way he’d managed to balance his ungainly bulk on the wire fencing. He was breathtakingly ludicrous, preening his feathers and stinking to high heaven.

The other woman recoiled and froze when she spotted him—or perhaps when she smelled him. Wide-eyed, she met my gaze and asked, in a hoarse voice absolutely shrinking with alarm, “What is that?”

“That’s a turkey vulture,” I rhapsodized, beaming in adoration. She didn’t seem comforted and looked inclined to cross the street. “Don’t worry about him,” I said, taking pains to sound more like a regular human. “You’re obviously alive. He really can’t be bothered with us.”

She stayed still for a moment more before finally croaking, “Okay.” And she hurried past the turkey vulture, past me, and off down the sidewalk to finish her walk unscathed.

I do wonder whether turkey vultures are curious about human beings. Whether they wonder what we taste like, we upright smooth-hided mammals who so rarely die out-of-doors, and, when we do, even more rarely are left to decompose where we have fallen. I would have such questions, I think, if I were a turkey vulture. After all, there are so many of us human beings. You’d think, statistically, that every turkey vulture would have sampled human flesh at least once. We must be almost mythical in the elusiveness of our dead.

But perhaps I only think so because I have a human brain and therefore fancy myself and my species incredibly important. Maybe turkey vultures don’t worry themselves over us at all. Or perhaps they think we’re awfully generous, the way we leave dead creatures strewn along our easy-to-follow roadways without even stopping to eat our fill.

I couldn’t watch the turkey vultures feast upon the unlucky deer for long. I needed to finish my loop and get to work, where I’d spend the day processing pixels on Microsoft Access and sorting invoices through Quickbooks. The rat race and the circle of life. Two realities intensely at odds. But both, of course, end the same way for the individual.

And that’s valuable to remember. Et in Arcadia ego—Even in Arcadia, there am I. We human beings make such efforts to separate ourselves from the wild uncontrollable world beyond our walls, but death is inescapable. No one gets out alive. We can hide our dead from the turkey vultures, and often even from ourselves, but we cannot hide ourselves from death. This is important. Necessary. Inevitability puts everything else into perspective.

Why fear turkey vultures when you’ll be past caring by the time they show any interest? Better to marvel at the endless dance spinning around us, to wonder at the parts we play, to recognize that Life and Death are always entwined.

And such a messy, intricate, jumbled business. Reminders like the deer and the turkey vultures ground me in the knowledge that life itself is miraculous. No next breath is guaranteed, no number of heartbeats. What is given is given only for a time, before it passes into other beings, serves other lives, nurtures other realities.

Have you ever had a close encounter with a turkey vulture or another kind of carrion bird? What was the experience like? Were you out in nature or closer to home? Tell us in the comments!

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Happy witnessing!

5 thoughts on “Memento Mori V – Or, The Deer and the Turkey Vultures

  1. I personally haven’t had a close encounter with the creatures, but your brother Daniel once unwittingly played ‘chicken’ with one on the highway and he was pretty traumatized. Luckily it didn’t shatter his windshield or he would have had a much closer encounter….

    Liked by 1 person

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